Editor’s Pick: Why We Write

by Marion Thomas                                                                                                                                               

We write because we feel. What we feel is truth. Words link our emotions to place and time. I drive along a dark empty road on the way home from a movie. It’s twelve o’clock am and the quiet storm is playing on the radio. Two Occasions by the Dell fill the car, and me, and I flush with the feeling of first love. I turn off the road I’m on and onto a different one, one where I’m suddenly sixteen again, in the backseat of the car with my first love. My head cradled in his lap, his hand caressing my forehead, our eyes locked in mutual love. His parents forgotten up front as we listened to the lyrics. I looked up into his eyes as he sang to me. I remember the tremble that went through me, the goosebumps on my skin, the feeling of wanting to be with him forever. I remember feeling. 

Twenty-one years later, I still feel the words of that song. Whenever I hear it, I’m transported back in time to that moment and place when I felt completely in love.

Truth is what we believe to be true. What we feel in our hearts, what we believe in our minds, and what we trust in our soul. We associate words with our senses—the places we have been, things we have seen, and create memories good and bad, memories that emotionally haunt us. We build a vocabulary of words through our experiences. We remember not the reality of the situation, but the feeling it filled within us. That is why our version of the truth will always be the real truth to us.

So, what is truth?   

Truth is what a person believes is true according to their experience and prior knowledge. According to Michael Fackerell, “Postmodernism denies the existence of an objective reality. Postmodernism postulates that reality is in the mind of the beholder. To postmodernists, we create our own truth,” story-truth and happening-truth. Truth is what we twist in order to evoke an emotional response from our listener; their sympathy, support, and understanding.      

Truth is what we hold inside, what we carry within ourselves like ghosts in Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried. Truth is what we are afraid to say aloud. The burden we carry in our breast, the words we hold in our hearts, swallow down inside that act as an anchor, weighing us down. The truth we carry within is determined by our necessity not to hurt the other party, believing some things are better left unsaid, varied by our mission to be socially accepted, partly for emotional safety, partly for the illusion of emotional safety.

Truth is the hardest thing to say. Words get stuck in our throats leaving us tongued-tied, dry-mouthed, voice crackling, and sweat beading. Gasping for air like a fish out of water. That’s when we know we’re in the vicinity of truth.

Truth hurts, so we hint at the truth. Talk around it, rarely blurt it out bluntly, saying what we really want to say. Like O’Brien, we ‘concoct’ our own semblance of truth. Our tongues wrestle out the white lie, lilt out the little lie, and belt out the big lie, tapering truth systematically, selecting words we think people want to hear. Believing as O’Brien that, “It is not the truth that is as important as the feelings the words evoke.”

According to Fackerell, “Postmodernists believe that we are in a way imprisoned by our own language, which has been determined outside of ourselves. It is believed that meaning is a function of language, that without the word to express it, the concept isn’t there.” Words carry emotional connotations. We as emotional beings associate words with feelings, therefore, words don’t evoke the same emotional response in everyone. For some people, the mention of home means warmth and comfort, family and fun. For others, it may mean inhospitable and uncomfortable, abandonment and alienation. Instead of the word home evoking warm and fuzzy feelings inside, home can be a tearful path into a person’s emotional hell. 

That’s why words are mightier than the sword. A carefully wielded word can cut a person so deep sending them on an emotional spiral that can take years to recover. Like the word fat. What woman wants to hear that word from her lover? “Honey, you’re getting fat.” Imagine the emotional response that one-word triggers. Insecurity, self-consciousness, social avoidance, mirror phobia, a mental breakdown and self-re-evaluation. Or the physical changes a body undergoes under emotional hurt. Nausea somersaulting at the top of a stomach, blood pumping, rushing to the head, bursting into aches and shivers and sweat, knees bucking the body into a dizzy sway. That’s when we take a moment to realize the power words have on us. 

Words can also be used as a wall for emotional protection, a coping mechanism through positive association. For example, in The Things They Carried, Sanders and other soldiers often used the phrase, “The night life…They lived the night life…A language trick. It made things seem tolerable” (219). The truth was, they were in war which Sanders didn’t want to say because telling the “truth feels like a physical rupture—a cracking-leaking-popping feeling” (46) like air slowly deflating out of a tire. It deflates us, drains us, leave us feeling empty inside. That is why we embellish to tell the story we need to tell, cushioning ourselves from the person we’re telling it to while trying to evoke a reaction out of them. Whatever emotion we’re angling for, we modify our ‘story’ to get it.

By telling stories, [we] objectify [our] own experience. [We] separate it from [ourselves]. [We] pin down certain truths. [We] make up others. [We] start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and [we] carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158)    

Why? Because truth is perception. Two people can witness the same traumatic event, such as a shooting, and there will be two different ‘truths’ according to each person’s visceral experience. Their reference of reality imbued with the acrid smell of seared flesh and gunpowder, the splatter of blood, the screeching sound of screaming, the taste of blood on a bitten tongue, the heavy weight of fear, and the pumping of the heart where sight automatically transmutes to emotion. What they felt when they saw what they saw. 

Why? Because fear distorts truth. Adrenaline distorts truth. Hurt distorts truth.  Guilt distorts truth. Emotions distort truth. Trauma tricks our memory into “wonder[ing] if [we’re] dreaming…Like [we’re] in a movie…[like we’re] somebody else…It all swirls together, cliché’s mixing with [our] own emotions, and in the end [we] can’t tell one from the other.” (207)

When we hurt we want to believe in something in order to cope with and move past our pain. A bad breakup, a violent rape, a soldier’s tour of duty in war. Where, “proximity to death bring[s] with it a corresponding proximity to life…[where we] feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of [our] living self—[our] truest self, the human being [we] want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. (81)

For the teller and the listener.  

Feelings blur perception which blurs the truth. Intense hurt and pain makes one emotional and emotion distorts what is real. Pain that cuts so deep the only thing a mind can do is concoct some semblance of truth to ease emotional, mental, or physical suffering. Hurt and guilt blurs our perception of reality, and our perception of truth where it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seems to happen.  What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap [of truth] explode, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. (71)

Like when story O’Brien stood staring down at the man he killed. To him, “The one eye did a funny twinkling trick, red to yellow…and the dead young man seemed to be staring at some distant object beyond the bell-shaped flowers along the trail.” (129) 

Or, his perception of senses skewed during the ambush lost in memory in the re-telling of the story to his daughter Kathleen. “There was no sound at all—none that I can remember. In a way, it seemed, he was part of the morning fog, or my own imagination, but there was also the reality of what was happening in my stomach.” (133)

“I did not hear it, but there must’ve been a sound, because the young man dropped his weapon and began to run” (133). Norman Bowker’s pain and guilt of letting his friend Kiowa’s body go to waste. The blur of truth why he didn’t win the Silver Star for uncommon valor. As he imagines telling the story, “Just a story” (142) of how he “almost won the Silver Star” (141) to his father,” he looked out across the lake and imagined the feel of his tongue against the truth” (142). The truth that is so hard to say that, “That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down in the sewage with him…Feels like I’m still in deep shit” (156).

Adrenaline blurs truth.

It drives the action of our tale. Under stress or duress, blood pumps fast, words flee fast at ‘high velocity’ until all that is left is a “giddy feeling” (47) from excitement or fear that forms and flows within us, and in our giddiness we amp up the truth. Truth echoes through the halls of our throats, bounces off the walls of memory, and becomes a blur of sound.

Out in the shit field, “For a long time, there were things he [the young soldier] could not remember. Various sounds, various smells. Later he’d found himself lying on a little rise, face-up, tasting the field in his mouth, listening to the rain and explosions and bubbling sounds.” (171)

He couldn’t remember the physical world, but “He remembered this. He remembered wondering if he could lose himself” (171). And “…how he had killed Kiowa” (176).

Guilt blurs truth.

The boy recognized his own guilt and wanted only to lay out the full causes. At one point, [he] remembered, he’d been showing the picture of his girlfriend. He remembered switching on his flashlight. A stupid thing to do, but he did it anyway, and he remembered Kiowa leaning in for a look at the picture…and then the field exploded all around them. Like murder, the boy thought. The flashlight made it happen…And as a result his friend Kiowa was dead. That simple, he thought.” (170)

The truth. 

The guilt each of the soldiers carried for Kiowa’s death caused them to spin tales of their own guilt driven version of not what happened, but why. In the letter to Kiowa’s father, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross would write that it was, “My own fault” (169). His failure as a leader, his terrible tactical decision, his inability to protect his soldier Kiowa from the waste of the war and sludge of the land, fermented in his mind transmuting guilt into blurred truth: it was his fault. “When a man died, there had to be blame…A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever” (177)

 A resigned truth.

“When in reality, shit happens. Especially in war. No apologies were necessary, because in fact it was one of those freak things, and the war was full of freaks, and nothing could ever change it anyway. Which was the truth, he thought. The exact truth.” (176)

At least that’s what he “tried to tell himself it was the truth” (176). To cope, to move past his pain.  

Trauma trivializes truth.

Emotion rises like a tidal wave and washes out the sands of truth until all that is left are shells of sentiment. Memories of feelings. What it felt like when it happened. Feelings overshadow, words become blurred and distorted in the re-telling. A woman has a bad breakup with her boyfriend. In her anger and pain, does she tell her girlfriend the ‘truth’ of what really happened, or does she tell a sorrow driven story for sympathy? How what her boyfriend did to her made her feel so that she can say it in a way that her girlfriend can feel it too. She may stick to parts of the truth but diverge on other parts depending on the emotional response she is trying to wangle from her girlfriend. And when that fails, “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (85). Because “What stories can do…is make things present. Where [one] can look at things [they] never looked at” (180). 

Like author Tim O’Brien. He writes the story of soldier O’Brien and tells the tale through narrator O’Brien in a fictional account that reads like a memoir. He uses three sides of himself to tell one story, using it to work out his survivor issues dealing with death, trying to fix his battlefield mistakes, breathing renewed life in the dead through stories. 

Author O’Brien dedicates his recount of war to story O’Brien’s platoon and his acknowledgements to his own platoon, his author self, and as for the narrator, “Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.” (John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary)  

Narrator O’Brien tells the story of how each ‘fictional’ soldier uses daydreams, fantasies, and stories to cope with the harsh realities of war. Soldier O’Brien feels as the rest of the soldiers in Alpha Company do, guilty for surviving the war when some of their comrades did not. 

O’Brien uses storytelling and writing as an outlet to make sense of his haunting memories of a horrific senseless war. To put down on paper the feelings he can’t forget. “Death sucks” (243). Reality sucks. Truth sucks.

That’s why O’Brien told stories.

“Often, they were exaggerated, or blatant lies, but it was a way of bringing body and soul back together, or a way of making new bodies for the souls to inhabit…A way to “keep the dead alive” (239).

To not only evoke an emotional response from his targeted audience, but to get us to feel what it was like to be surrounded twenty-four hours by death, knowing at any moment we could be shot, “Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead” (24). Forced to go to war, story O’Brien lost the life he should’ve had. That was story O’Brien’s reality. 

That was the truth.    

Story O’Brien and the young soldiers of Alpha Company couldn’t bear to carry the heavy weight of war. In the darkness, the blood of fallen buddies, the blast of bullets, the smell of singed skin and putrid flesh, the reality of death was too true. So, they used fantasy and story-telling to lighten their load, to cope with the unweighted burden of what wasn’t real. “It was a kind of self-hypnosis. Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive” (244).

The point of telling a story is not to deliver true facts exactly as they happened, but to use facts and details in order to give an accurate account of the feelings behind a given situation. To shape the listener’s listening experience. In The Things They Carried, though the events in the story are not true, the story itself conveys an emotional truth. 

In [life] you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true [life] story nothing is ever absolutely true.” (82)

Only what you feel is true. And that is the truth.

 

Sources

Fackerell, Michael. “Postmodernism and the Death of Truth.” Christian-Faith.com. 8 Mar. 2007. Christian-Faith.com. 4 Mar. 2009 <http://www.christian-faith.com/forjesus/postmodernism-and-death-truth>.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990.